United Kingdom


Sustainable Policies


Economic Policies

With Brexit-driven concerns undermining economic stability, the United Kingdom falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 18) in the area of economic policy. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.4 points relative to 2014.

The looming uncertainty of Brexit has overshadowed the country’s development. Economic growth has remained positive since the referendum vote, but slowed after 2017, reaching 1.4% in 2019. The export sector remains weak, and the lack of clarity regarding future UK-EU relations, especially financial-sector access to the continent, has weighed on the economy.

The labor market has remained strong, with unemployment rates falling to 3.8% in mid-2019, and the employment rate at 75.7% in 2018. However, this has come at the cost of weak productivity growth. Youth unemployment rates are considerably higher. The minimum wage has increased. A new “digital tax” on technology companies with UK users is being imposed.

The leading parties have declared that “austerity is over,” with higher levels of public spending planned to defray difficulties associated with Brexit. Financial regulation is expected to remain closely aligned with EU standards, but the European Banking Agency has moved to Paris. The future relationship between UK and EU research programs and initiatives remains unclear.

Social Policies

With a largely effective social-benefits system, the United Kingdom scores well overall (rank 7) with regard to social policies. Its score on this measure has declined by 0.1 point since 2014.

Recent higher-education fee hikes remain very controversial, though enrollment rates have remained steady. Concerns about student debt levels have prompted proposals that fees should be reduced, or that the student loan system needs to be reformed. Universities fear that Brexit will harm their ability to attract EU students and researchers. PISA results have improved.

A reform seeking to repeal a series of targeted welfare payments with a single payment mechanism has met with implementation difficulties, with support levels falling for larger families. An affordable-housing shortage has particularly affected urban low-income households. Pension benefits are robust, and the system is fiscally sustainable.

The universal healthcare system remains strong, but service provision has been unable to keep pace with rising demand. Winter crises, with hospitals struggling to find bed space, have become the norm. Funding for social care has been cut, resulting in the use of more costly hospital care. The government has promised to curb immigration after Brexit.

Environmental Policies

As a strong voice for environmental protection, the United Kingdom falls into the top ranks internationally (rank 6) for its environmental policies. Its score on this measure has gained 0.7 points relative to its 2014 level.

Despite strong environmental rhetoric, subsidies for green energy have been cut in recent years. Market-based mechanisms continue to inform environmental policy, paired with planning systems such the effort to protect green belts around urban areas. Some ecological programs have fallen victim to spending cuts.

Public opposition to natural-gas fracking has prevailed, and companies are abandoning drilling plans. Much environmental policy has been determined by the EU. While some post-Brexit divergence is possible, the UK is expected to maintain most large commitments.

The government ratified the Paris climate-change accord in late 2016. It has also boosted the construction of on- and off-shore wind farms. Following a public consultation, it has developed plans to reduce plastics use, including a new plastics tax. Environmental protest movements have prompted all major parties to promise stronger policies in the future.

Robust Democracy


Quality of Democracy

With increasing polarization and tension related to Brexit, the United Kingdom falls into the middle ranks (rank 16) with respect to democracy quality. Its score on this measure has declined by 0.1 point relative to its 2014 level.

The process of delivering Brexit has led to considerable uncertainty over deadlines, future rules and how different interests would be affected. The post-Brexit status of 3 million EU citizens living in the UK had not been clarified by the end of the review period. Vocal calls for a second referendum were ultimately not taken up.

For ordinary elections, paid television campaign advertising is banned, but major parties are granted free ad time. Donation-based party funding has produced abuses. The government occasionally seeks to restrict press freedom for security reasons, but such instances trigger considerable backlash. Media concentration is significant.

Civil rights are generally adequately protected, but anti-terrorism measures have become increasingly harsh. The “Snooper’s Charter” expanding the government’s surveillance powers was declared unlawful by a court. The government has said it would replace the Human Rights Act with a new Bill of Rights, but it is unclear what will change, or how courts will function in this area post-Brexit.

Good Governance


Executive Capacity

Although Brexit has prompted serious internal government strife, the United Kingdom scores well in international comparison (rank 10) with regard to executive capacity. Its score on this measure has declined by 0.3 points relative to its 2014 level.

The difficulties of implementing Brexit under a minority government upended traditional procedures. A rift within the Conservative Party led to the collapse of Teresa May’s government. Successor Boris Johnson adopted a strategy that combined opacity with confrontation, nearly provoking a constitutional crisis. Following elections, Johnson has managed to reinstate cabinet discipline.

Johnson’s government has not taken legal RIA obligations seriously, performing no conventional RIA or sustainability review on the Brexit deal. The fraught politics in autumn 2019 were not conducive to a coherent communications strategy. The government does make efforts to consult organized economic and civil-society groups.

Persistent problems in the National Health Service have had to be addressed by resort to emergency funding. Brexit has distracted civil servants, undermining the effectiveness of civil service operations. Central government funding for local governments was heavily cut during the austerity years, forcing service cutbacks. Key industries are able to affect the passage and design of regulations.

Executive Accountability

With a mix of strengths and weaknesses, the United Kingdom falls into the upper-middle ranks (rank 12) with respect to executive accountability. Its score on this measure has improved by 0.4 points as compared to its 2014 level.

Parliamentarians, especially in the opposition, have relatively few resources, though formal oversight powers are adequate. Obtaining Brexit-related documents from the government has at times proved difficult. The National Audit Office is independent and well-regarded. The ombuds system has been expanded in recent years. An information commissioner enforces data-protection laws.

For widely discussed issues, UK citizens show a high degree of policy knowledge in international comparison. Increasing amounts of government information are available online, with outreach campaigns targeting specific groups. Although the country’s main broadcast media produce high-quality news programming, newspaper quality varies widely.

Parties allow members – and in Labour’s case, “registered supporters” – to elect leaders, but other decisions are more centralized. Economic-interest organizations have become more assertive faced with the prospect of Brexit, with some making clear that it could negatively affect their British production. Civil-society organizations are also sophisticated and offer reasonable, if sometimes narrow, proposals.
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